Super Rugby format a failure

Sports scientist Ross Tucker says there’s little to be positive about when looking back at the 2012 Super Rugby campaign.

The Super Rugby play-off rounds painted an entertaining picture. The Chiefs and Sharks surprised many with their runs into the title decider, following semi-final victories over seven-time champions the Crusaders and table-topping Stormers respectively. The New Zealand franchise then powered to their first Super Rugby crown with a 37-6 triumph in front of their cowbell-ringing fans.

However, as a spectator, one was left disappointed after the Hamilton final. We had to witness one team, who enjoyed a week’s break before the final four stage, capitalise on a side that travelled across the Indian Ocean three times in as many weeks.

One may argue that the Chiefs earned this advantage by securing a higher position on the overall standings. But shouldn’t a final be a fair contest? A match which sees the two in-form teams of the tournament battle it out on more equal grounds?

We saw the Crusaders struggle in the same scenario last season, as they traveled from Nelson to Cape Town before losing in Brisbane to the Reds, who had the advantage the Chiefs had this season.

What’s worse is that there’s nothing that can be done to change the current style of the 15-team tournament. Well … not for the next three seasons at least as Sanzar is committed to a broadcasting contract that only expires in 2015.

Tucker believes the current Super Rugby format isn’t successful.

‘Super Rugby has become a money-driven competition, with a strong bias towards to the Australian teams,’ Tucker told keo.co.za. ‘It’s a shame because Super Rugby was such a strong competition, especially when it was still the Super 12. It was strength versus strength every weekend.

‘In the current format, Australia, who have the weakest conference in Super Rugby, are promised at least one team in the play-offs. And their conference winner will be guaranteed home-ground advantage in their play-off game, despite having less log points than some of the other teams placed below them [the Crusaders, Bulls and Sharks had more log points than the Reds this year].

‘This disadvantages the strongest nation in Super Rugby, which was South Africa this season as they had three teams in the top six. We had to see the Bulls and Sharks travel for their play-off matches, which had a negative impact on their momentum. The Sharks did well, but the travel factor caught up to them.’

Tucker also questioned whether the extended tournament schedule was favoured by supporters.

‘Time to time, Sanzar have been raving about increases in ratings for certain matches and at certain stadiums, but I’m sure that the amount of rugby played has had a negative overall impact. Especially when it comes to rugby in South Africa. With the Currie Cup, we could see the Sharks play the Bulls up to five times a year, which is too much.

‘This structure also robs the spectators of major matches. The top teams don’t always face each other, so some fans would have to wait three to four years before a side like the Crusaders or the Chiefs tour to their stadium.’

Injuries were also a major concern during the season. While several players suffered long-term spells on the sidelines midway through the campaign, it was a common sight to see players limping off early during the play-offs. There were nine injury-forced changes before half-time during the knockout rounds, while there were several substitutions made shortly after the second half restart.

While the annual player exodus is already an issue in all three Sanzar nations, the hectic Super Rugby schedule is likely to encourage more players jet off to Japan and Europe. Japan will become an ideal move as players play half the amount of rugby (because of their foreign player restrictions that only allows three international players in the starting line-up) and get paid more.

Fourie du Preez, Jaque Fourie, Ryan Kankowski, Wynand Olivier, Jerome Kaino and Sonny Bill Williams have already formed part of this Asian trend, and many more top players could be lost to Super Rugby by the end of 2015. And who could blame them? Test players have to go through Super Rugby, June inbound tours midway through the competition, the Rugby Championship and the end-of-year tour.

‘The current Super Rugby format does not take the players’ welfare into consideration,’ argued Tucker. ‘I think if we had to do a study by the end of 2015, I’m sure we’d notice players’ careers ending far earlier than compared to past studies. It’s quite unfortunate actually – players would actually have to suffer long-term injuries to prolong their careers. A guy like Schalk Burger would have benefitted from the rest he received this year, even though it was because of injury.

‘There is a point that coaches will need to build bigger squads and use better management plans. They’ll need three quality players in every position to survive the campaign. But there’s still no reason for the season to stretch over so many months. The NFL in America has the shortest season of all the top sports, but it’s the richest code in the world.

‘These changes to Super Rugby have been made for the wrong reasons. The powers in charge will need to take all the negative factors into account.’

By Gareth Duncan